"To my mind, plot is merely one way of telling a story, by connecting the happenings tightly, usually through causal chains. Plot is a marvelous device. But it's not superior to story, and not even necessary to it. "

- Ursula K. Le Guin
Movie review: Thor



I think it's generally agreed that I'm the conservative blogsphere's go-to guy for all matters Norse, so I felt a sort of civic duty to see the movie Thor this weekend, and to let you know what I thought of it.

Briefly put, it's pretty good. Considered on its own terms, as a fantasy/comic book/special effects actioner, it succeeds extremely well. It doesn't scale the heights of Batman Begins or The Dark Knight, but I'd rank it somewhere near the top. Kenneth Branagh's direction elevates the script (not a bad one at all), and the cast is uniformly excellent. Chris Hemsworth, in the title role, will doubtless break many female hearts, and he ought to become a big star if there's any justice in Midgard.

Thor is the son and heir of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), the high god of Asgard. Asgard, in this version (more or less based on the Marvel comic books) is explained in S.M.D. (Standard Movie Doubletalk) as one of nine dimensions, or alternate universes, or something. The “gods” are able to travel to the other “worlds” by means of the bridge of Bifrost, explained as a sort of organized wormhole (Bifrost, the rainbow in Norse mythology, is pronounced “Bye-frost” in the movie, although the proper pronunciation is “beef-roast”). Long ago the gods prevented their great enemies, the Jotuns or Frost Giants (who in the movie do not resemble in any way the big, bearded oafs of the myths), from conquering Midgard (Earth). Because of their memories of this war, humans came to regard them as divine beings.

As the story begins, Thor is about to be officially named Odin's heir in a great ceremony in Asgard. In the midst of this, Jotun spies make an incursion into Asgard. Thor, enraged, leads a punitive expedition into Jotunheim, killing a number of the frost giants. Odin, who loves peace, appears to rescue Thor and his friends when they're about to be overwhelmed by numbers. He berates Thor for his impetuousness and banishes him to earth (he lands in New Mexico), also sending his mighty weapon, the hammer Mjolnir, down with him.

At that point Thor collides with a van driven by scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her two colleagues. They rush him to an emergency room where he wreaks havoc, thinking he's been taken prisoner. Later he escapes, and they all reunite as Thor attempts to retrieve Mjolnir, which has landed in the desert like a meteorite, and over which the comic book government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. has taken control. Gradually he comes to understand that he has been deeply manipulated and betrayed by someone he trusted in Asgard.

Thor learns humility, falls in love with Jane Foster (surprise!) and returns to Asgard a wiser, more responsible god.

Unless you're a heathen purist, I think you'll find it hard to dislike this movie. It's definitely worth the ticket money, something that's too often not the case these days (I even plunked the extra bucks for 3-D, for the same reason I still have a baby's wind-up mobile hanging over my bed). Thor provides plenty of thrills, action, romance, and even a moral lesson.

Many, many liberties are taken with the original mythological material. This is mostly the fault of Marvel Comics. What particularly intrigues me is the way the Odin of the comic books and of the movie differs from the original Odin we encounter in the sagas, eddas, and scaldic poetry of the Viking Age. The differences, I think, are instructive.

To anyone schooled in Norse mythology, the Odin of the movie is almost unrecognizable, except for his long beard, lack of one eye, and possession of Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse (which provides an extremely cool special effects moment). Anthony Hopkins' Odin is wise and good, full of benevolence and cherishing a horror of war. He's kind of like a professor of English or some social science at an Ivy League university—wooly-headed enough to throw away the gods' greatest weapon at a moment of dire military threat.

The Odin of the Vikings was most of all an extremely powerful magician, a wizard—not the nice kind of wizard like Gandalf, though he was one of Tolkien's inspirations for the character, but the old kind of wizard—treacherous and murderous, with lies on his lips and blood under his fingernails. He delighted in war for two reasons—one in order to feed the wolves and ravens that were his familiars, secondly in order to fill his hall, Valhalla, with heroes who would stand with him at Ragnarok, the last great battle. To this end he raised heroes up and then brutally betrayed them. He was also, according to the eddas, a sexual predator and a known deviate.

The difference between these two Odins, I think, is suggestive of important—and generally unrecognized—elements in western culture. The script writers have confused Odin with the Yahweh of the Jews and Christians. It doesn't even occur to them that a high god could be anything but kind and peace-loving, since we all have so thoroughly internalized Christian suppositions that even people who reject the Christian religion—and I assume that a large proportion of the people who made this movie do—can't conceive of a religion founded on darkness and brute force and the domination of the weak by the strong.

In an odd plot element (I'll try not to spoil it) Thor submits to a Christ-like humiliation for the sake of others. This is something that would have never been said of him in the old religion, except as a joke. Even Thor has grown richer through acquaintance with Jesus.

All in all, I'm pleased with the movie. I think it will provide material for valuable discussions.

Best of all, I've been able to solve the nagging problem of who to cast as Erling Skjalgsson, when my novel West Oversea inevitably becomes a blockbuster movie.

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Comments on "Movie review: Thor":
1. Tom - 05/16/2011 8:36 pm EDT

Lynnea and I have been waiting for you to write this review, and we're glad to hear it wasn't as bad as others said. Perhaps they were expecting too much out of a summer comic book movie.

2. Greybeard - 05/17/2011 9:22 am EDT

Lars, do your readers realize that when you said the script was "not bad at all," you paid the writers the highest compliment available among Norwegian Americans? The Law of Jante is really exemplified in Not Bad. In that mindset anyone who seeks to reach beyond Not Bad is an unreliable dreamer. Have the people of Modern Norway evolved beyond the emigrants of our great grandfather's generation to find a higher goal in life than Not Bad?

3. Lars Walker - 05/17/2011 9:30 am EDT

Greybeard, the answer to that is implicit in the simple fact that they have embraced Social Democracy.

And happy Syttende Mai!

4. Carmen Belanger - 05/17/2011 5:39 pm EDT

Thanks, Lars -- will definitely have to arrange to see the movie now.

And I wish someone *would* make movie of West Oversea, as I would certainly pay to see it. (Blithe assumption that H'wood would not muck it up beyond recognition) ;)

5. Frank Luke - 05/18/2011 10:31 am EDT

I noticed the Odin problem in the trailer and have been waiting for your review. I'll add this to my list to see at some point in the future.

6. SD Smith - 05/21/2011 7:45 am EDT

Good one, as always, Lars.

7. Ben Malik - 05/22/2011 2:42 pm EDT

What book do you recommend getting to read about the norse gods and their exploits?

8. Lars Walker - 05/22/2011 3:31 pm EDT

A very good introduction is Kevin Crossley-Holland's The Norse Myths: http://www.amazon.com/Norse-Myths-Pantheon-Folklore-Library/dp/0394748468/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1306092568&sr=1-2

9. ChestertonianRambler - 05/23/2011 1:26 am EDT

It's interesting that you pointed out the connection to Yahweh.

I was struck watching the movie by the way it is true to a certain religious line common among classic comic books. Many of the movers and shakers were Jewish immigrants, and tend to write stories that deal with their experience. Superman is a being from a strange, once-powerful but now destroyed culture, who carries his values into America where he struggles to assimilate while remaining true to himself, for instance.

In Thor, I saw this with the character of Dr. Selvig. Despite living in America, he is a cultural outsider whose strange heritage (childhood stories of Nordic gods) surprisingly allows him to play a vital role in the defense of America (i.e. by teaching people about his culture, he lets them form an alliance with the powerful Thor). It isn't hard for me to imagine Stan Lee, Thor's Jewish creator, sympathizing with such a character. The hope of many immigrants is to see their cultural distinctives valued and made useful in America. If Lee is really thinking of himself, then it only makes sense that the character's gods would look much more like Stan Lee's God.

Not sure how that explains the Christlike nature of Thor, though. Or the fact that Lee's Judeo-Christian vision was so popular among people who were neither Jews nor immigrants.

Fun movie, in any case.

10. Lars Walker - 05/23/2011 8:23 am EDT

Good thoughts. Stan Lee, as I understand it, is an atheist of long standing. So his values would be, like those of so many Americans, legacy values from a faith he no longer embraces.

11. Greybeard - 06/02/2011 12:11 pm EDT

I'm surprised the spam post from the ticket guy has gone over a day without getting deleted.

12. Phil - 06/02/2011 12:26 pm EDT

What post is that?

13. Lars Walker - 06/02/2011 12:30 pm EDT

I got the e-mail notification, and came over and looked for it, but had forgotten which post it was attached to. So I let it go after I'd poked around a bit.

14. Greybeard - 06/02/2011 12:41 pm EDT

It's gone now. It was comment number 11.

15. Ragnar Harifot - 07/11/2011 7:44 pm EDT

Odin a Peacenic? Thor Christ like? I think I'm going to be sick! Come on Hollywood and do those gods right, and not try to make them into God. Oh well, I'll have to think about going to see this one. Lars, do they hand out barf bags? OK, I just know Lars will get me for this one.:-)

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